by Andy Held, Member of Board of Trustees
After traversing a supai ridge, the Malgosa Crest, my friends and I were heading down a broken crack-system through the redwall limestone. A fault had sheared the redwall millennia ago, providing a route for us through the 2000 foot cliff band. Dusk came. Visibility was getting poor, and we found ourselves on a slightly sloping 8 foot x 8 foot ledge, with a 1000 foot drop just beyond. It was time to bivvy — to camp with no gear — on a February night in Northern Arizona. The three of us each had some extra clothes and a bit of food. Water might be a problem. The key was to stay warm…
Fast forward ten years, to winter 2010. My five year-old daughter is in the Monthly Program at Wilderness Awareness School. Dave Scott, the lead instructor, asks if any parents want to volunteer. Heck, yes! I enroll in the Coyote Mentoring workshop to get firsthand experience in how and what they teach.
I came to Coyote Mentoring with what seems to be a “typical” background: I’m in the woods a lot, and I fancy myself a good teacher. My daughters are my everyday students — we don’t homeschool; we enhance their Waldorf education with important stuff like how to paddle and how to pee in the woods. I also teach adults wilderness first aid and river safety.
My respect for the instructors at Wilderness Awareness School grew throughout the weekend. In about two hours on that Saturday afternoon, every student had a powerful experience in the importance of approaching a subject with multiple teaching styles. This education came subtly, as small groups spent 20 minutes each with five different instructors.
One led a walk through the woods picking plants and lecturing on their properties and uses. (Tons of facts — I retained none.) Another just told a story about an afternoon he spent chopping wood. But Wilderness Awareness instructors never just tell stories. They bring stories to life, and inside those stories are lessons within lessons. We also had a trickster, a coyote, lead our group in a fire-starting exercise. In order to ‘make it fair,’ I was given a broken leg — I could help with construction, but could not gather materials — while the Anake student in our group had a sudden case of blindness and couldn’t effectively help at all. We got a nice fire going in our allotted five minutes with one match. Then a freak rain storm came through (in the form of a bucket of water); it put out the fire and soaked everything. We had to do it again.
The aha! moment came when we discussed our experiences. I thought the didactic lecture on plants was worthless. Others loved it. For me, crawling in the dirt to identify some tracks was wonderful. The instructor never gave us a single answer, he just asked a few focusing questions that led us on to make our own discoveries. From that two-hour experience, I received a visceral understanding that two students, side-by-side, might need two completely different teaching approaches to master the same material.
Since then I’ve been using my Coyote Mentoring training. Starting last spring I began volunteering with the Monthly Program. This school year, I’ve been to every monthly session at Saint Edward State Park. This group of eight- and nine-year old kids has two instructors. One instructor, an Anake graduate with tons of additional experience under her belt, is a true Master of the Woods. I tag along and help where I can, learning as much from the kids as I teach them.
In addition to deepening my connection with nature, I’ve also deepened my connection with Wilderness Awareness School. On the last afternoon of my Coyote Mentoring course, I spent a while chatting with Nate Summers, the head of the Anake Leadership Program. Nate connected me with Warren Moon, the Executive Director. A few months later, I agreed to join the Board of Trustees of Wilderness Awareness School.
I serve on the Board because of the great impact the school has — and greater impact it can have — on the lives of children and adults. Wilderness Awareness School truly delivers on its mission of connecting people with nature, community and self.
… The end of the story: We gathered all the sticks and shrubs we found on our ledge. We kept each other warm until about midnight. Then we lit our little fire and kept it burning until past sunrise. A short scramble back up the chute in full daylight revealed the fork we’d missed. A few hours later, we were back in camp.